CHARLOTTE – It’s some point around Lap 39 on Sunday when I realize there are still more than 540 miles left of this race. The couple next to me has just grabbed some homemade chicken salad out of the sun-weathered orange Coleman they have to slide into the aisle every time anyone wants to walk by. They’re about to house an entire sleeve of Ritz crackers, and I’m noticing that the handful of Bojangles Chicken Supremes I ate about an hour ago aren’t exactly going to be enough food when there are more than 360 freaking laps remaining. This was such bad planning.
A row ahead, a guy who doesn’t look like he’s ever worn sunscreen in his life can barely open his eyes. He’s doing a shimmy shake dance, holding his fingers out in what appears to be a second cousin to Johnny Manziel’s money sign every time Jeff Gordon finishes a lap, or is shown on the video board, or if anyone mentions Gordon by name. About 50 feet to the right of me, two elderly women are wearing matching Nationwide hats, and although I observe they’re not smoking cigarettes because there are designated smoking patios at the race now, I still can’t help mentally placing cigarettes in their mouths whenever I look at them — it feels more natural that way.
We’re on another caution, and I’m suddenly well aware of just how little I know about this sport when I look up at the leaderboard and I’m not exactly sure who is winning.
I know Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drives No. 88 because everybody who lives in this state knows Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drives No. 88. Jimmie Johnson is easy too. My friend Robby Kalland agreed to be my guide for the day after driving up from Atlanta for the weekend. He has a Kyle Busch visor on with a picture of the Red M&M standing on the front of it, arms crossed, looking like he’s about to wreck somebody, so I put two and two together that Busch is sitting in the 18 car. There are a pair of real-deal Brad Keselowski fans in the first row losing their everloving minds any time he passes anyone, and they’re covered in the number two. And of course, there’s Gordon, who has just driven by, leading the guy right in front of me to elbow the guy next to him and point to his koozie, which naturally is camo-colored and has the number 24.
There’s some on-camera talent interviewing fans on the video board throughout the race, and one guy is holding up a pickled egg. This is the South, so the guy holding the mic can’t exactly say no when offered the egg although it’s clear he doesn’t want to eat it. He takes a bite and immediately looks like he’s going to throw that egg back up. The shirtless man who is revealed to have an entire bag of these purple monstrosities starts laughing, and although it’s hard to make out what he’s saying over the roar of engines, I’m about 95 percent sure he says “it takes a man’s man” to eat them.